by kyle shaw

BEFORE THIS year, Canada earned its rep as a pot-friendly country through a four-step program. (1) Experiment with medical marijuana. (2) Don't hand out life sentences for any cannabis crimes. (3) Keep that B.C. "superpot" coming. (4) Live near a nation with weed laws so crazy, you'll always look great in comparison. Using this easy plan, the Canadian commitment to marijuana was unquestioned.

In the last few weeks, however, that relaxed approach went out the window. Since its federal government was pushed by the courts to decriminalize possession, Canada's been publicly exposed as a smoker's haven. But George Bush's nose is officially out of joint about sharing his border with the stoner nation to the north. Torn over going its own way on pot or following Bush, Canada opted for compromise, drafting a stupid law that loosens up on possession, then increases jail terms for distribution. It was a test of Canada's convictions, and Canada failed.

Marijuana became a really burning topic May 16, when a superior-court judge in Ontario--cementing a January lower-court ruling--declared Canada's possession law invalid. The story behind the case is complicated, involving an epileptic who's allowed pot for medical reasons, a 16-year-old arrested for smoking up in a park, and equal rights. The result, however, is simple: Canada does not have a law against possession. And as the news spread across the land, many small fires were lit to celebrate.

With the gauntlet thrown down from the court, on May 27 the government proposed a law making possession of 15 grams or less a minor offence, like a speeding ticket. The bill wasn't passed before Canada's parliament went on summer vacation, so right now pot is in a legal vacuum. That--and a lot of bongs--is the sucking sound Americans can hear in border states.

Even before the Ontario judge passed the weed issue to the government, Bush's gang went on the attack to discourage legalization. "We would be forced to respond," warned David Murray, a capo in drug czar John Walters' organization. During an interview with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, he nearly explained the forces at work here. "You can't wall this off, saying, 'We're only talking about a little cannabis.' Our experience is they come together like the Four Horsemen."

Not to belittle America's familiarity with the Apocalypse, or to bother with the gateway myth, but don't bogart the fun. Last year the Canadian Senate Special Committee on Illegal Drugs brought out its report stating there is no gate; most recreational tokers don't become addicts; and booze and cigarettes cost society way, way more than the illegal drugs.

These facts don't make it to Bush's world, of course. He sees Prime Minister Chrétien debating a person's right to get baked without going to jail, and thinks Canada's gone soft on drugs. That's simply not the case. Sure, the new law would make possession a ticketing offence rather than a crime--but since courts ruled there are no valid possession laws in Canada, the government is actually trying to recriminalize rather than decriminalize pot. Plus the proposed law includes new penalties to make Canada's stance on weed stricter. Growers would face 14 years in prison, doubled from the current seven, and a trafficking conviction could mean a life sentence. Harsh tokes indeed.

Easing up on possession while clamping down on production is hypocritical and anti-capitalist. On the demand side, it's fair to assume a lighter penalty on possession won't exactly chase away potential new users. So as more buyers decide they'll risk the fine--$150 for an adult--we can predict a growth in the dealing trade and its attendant criminal culture. Not the safest result of a law meant to take the hysteria out of a pretty safe drug. In terms of supply, stiffer laws against distribution theoretically make weed scarce, leaving citizens at the demand end of the chain praying to the Pot Fairy for their 15 grams.

Waffling on the brink of a decision is a typically Canadian move. The nation, caught from birth between the pull of two empires and France, often acts like the little sibling wanting to please everybody. But when it comes to pot, there's just not going to be a way to satisfy the Bush doctrine of reefer madness, while supporting public opinion and science. Canada still tried, unfortunately, creating a set of regulations that makes the country feel more like America than Amsterdam.